As leaders within organizations, we rarely get to start our own team from scratch. We receive teams as they were formed. Often, we have limited ability to change the makeup of these teams effectively. As a manager, how then do we manage the team we were given?
I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration and instruction from two leaders within their perspective fields. The first is Kim Scott. Kim has led teams at all the biggest and most successful technology companies of the 21st Century: Apple, Google, and Facebook. Her book, Radical Candor, is an evergreen manual for anyone who manages people. The other leader is (counterintuitively) Bill Walsh, a late NFL coach who found unparalleled success with the San Francisco 49ers in the 80s and 90s. His book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, is a fascinating look at leadership and management within a team with constraints around resources, growth, scalability, and turnover.
Both Scott and Walsh align around spending time to get to know the team you have. Taking any sort of action before deeply understanding the state of your team is folly.
During this evaluation period, Walsh says that a manager has two jobs: communicate what you are evaluating team members against and watch how they respond. In Walsh’s case, this meant communicating his “Standard of Performance”. He had a detail-oriented standard he wanted his staff and teams to perform at. This standard governed everything from how to answer the phones at 49ers HQ to how a wide receiver ran routes. He expected everyone to perform at a very high level all the time. His theory (and proven practice) showed that when you focused on your own ability to perform at a high level, the score would take care of itself.
Bill Walsh communicated his Standard of Performance through various mediums, but the most important was through modeling. He never asked anyone to do anything he wasn’t already doing himself. As he communicated, he monitored the response of his staff and team. He took time to connect with many one-on-one to understand how his message resonated with those individuals.
Kim Scott takes a slightly different approach, which I identify with and have utilized in the past. She suggests that before you can really manage a team, you must know them. To know them as colleagues and team members, you need to make a connection on a personal level. She suggests conducting one-on-one meetings with all your direct reports to focus on a couple of different things. First, you ask your direct report to walk you through their work history. Ask questions about what they did, who they worked with, and why the work they did was important for them. Next, have a conversation about where they want to end up in their career.
When I’ve done this, I encourage the conversations to veer toward idealistic dreams, not pragmatic plans. We don’t have to figure out how to get there or what the next steps will be to get on the right path. What we do want to do is understand what our direct report wants to get out of work. That way, we’ll know how to equip them for opportunities as they arise. After these two conversations, we’ll have a much better handle on the experience and dreams of the people under our management.
Once you’ve had some time to get to know your team, it’s time to start building understanding about your team makeup. The question is: What do we evaluate for when seeking to understand our team? Do we evaluate for talent? I would venture no. As managers, we need to accept the fact that not every team will be populated by extremely talented individuals. We will always have a broad spectrum of talent on any team. Additionally, just because someone isn’t as talented as another, it doesn’t mean they can’t be useful toward your organizations’ goals. Give me an engaged, less-talented team member any day over an unengaged, talented team member!
Both Scott and Walsh agree that, as a manager, we can’t be in the talent management game. The game we should be playing is the growth management game. To play that game, the key metric for evaluating our teams isn’t talent, but growth. How do you manage growth? By identifying where the different members of your team are in terms of performance and planning how you’ll move them from where they are to where they need to be. Walsh and Scott both take a 4 quadrant approach to team evaluation.
Walsh’s four quadrants are along two axis. The X axis is “cultural alignment” and the Y axis is “performance”.
- The upper right quadrant is for people who are culturally aligned and highly performant. He calls these people “Superstars”. Athletes like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice slot into that quadrant. These are the cornerstone members of your team.
- Team members on who are highly aligned, but not very performant he identifies as “Rookies”. They are people who are new to the org, hungry to prove themselves, but are still learning the ropes. The goal with these folks is to help them gain proficiency and move into the “Superstar” quadrant.
- The lower right-hand quadrant is for people who are highly proficient, but not very culturally aligned. Walsh calls these team members “Free Agents”. They aren’t going to be around forever, but they are very useful at the moment. The next best job offer they get means they’ll probably take it and move on to other pastures. You want to work to depend less on Free Agents than you do on Superstars and Rookies.
- The last quadrant is for people who aren’t aligned and aren’t performing. Predictably, this quadrant is called “Waivers”. People who are in this quadrant need to move on to another organization where they can be aligned and perform better.
Scott’s four quadrants are also along two axis. The Y axis is also performance, but the X axis is for growth, divided between steep growth and gradual growth. In her quadrants, team members grow in performance from left to right on two different tracks: steep growth trajectory and gradual growth trajectory. How do you know what side of the X axis people land on? Scott’s approach is pretty straightforward. She sees teams being divided between two types of members: Superstars and Rock stars.
Superstars are people whose eventual ambitions probably lie outside your organization. They are extraordinarily gifted leaders with big ambitions. They will push your organization toward growth along many vectors. However, there may not be room in your organization for their next career step. You hope you’ll be able to hold onto them for as long as possible. Superstars are on a steep growth trajectory that may end up with them leaving your organization (or taking your job).
Rock stars are the undergirding stability of your team. They may not be on a steep growth trajectory, but they are continually improving at a gradual rate. They perform well in their given role, but they may never grow out of that role. Any company needs more rock stars than they do superstars. People of either the rock star or superstar persuasion who aren’t growing should probably also be managed out of the organization.
Having taken time to get to know your team, it should be relatively easy to see where the different members lie on either of these quadrants. Each quadrant has an indication of the strategic outlook you can take as a manager to add value to each team member’s employment experience. It will be up to you to determine if you have the right people in the right positions for your team to flourish.
You might have to make some tough choices to get the right team mix. The most important thing to remember is that you’re managing for the growth of the individual, not talent. As your team aligns and grows, you’ll find that your dream team was there all along.
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